He felt so nervous. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He didn’t know anyone at the party except for Brent. He’d overheard him talking about it to one of his stupid jock buddies. No, Tanner wasn’t invited, but he knew he wouldn’t be turned away.
He was dressed like a girl. And he looked really hot.
He’d never done anything like this before outside of Halloween parties, but he knew what to do. He’d waxed every inch of his body, although he didn’t have much hair anyway. He already had the knee high black vinyl boots from a trip to New York City the summer before school started. It wasn’t difficult or expensive to get a slutty size zero outfit to fit snugly on his narrow hips. The most expensive part of the outfit was the Miracle Bra from Victoria’s Secret with the built-in silicone.
By the time he started up the walkway to the somewhat dilapidated fraternity house, the door had already opened.
“Where have you been all my life?” a boy slurred, nearly falling out the door at Tanner’s feet. Tanner sighed and stepped over him. He was relieved that the rooms were crowded. It was loud and smoky and easy to get lost in the crowd. He got a few stares, but for the most part, no one seemed to think Who’s that freak boy in drag? They seemed to be thinking I’d like to hit that, or at least that’s what it looked like from the leers he was getting.
He had to find Brent. He moved through the crowd, head held high like he owned the place, never betraying the fact that his stomach was flipping. He moved into a room where a couple of boys were playing bartender from a keg, and he waited in the impromptu line for a beer. Something to calm his nerves.
“Oh my God, I love your boots,” an obviously drunk sorority girl giggled. “How can you walk in them?”
“They’re not so bad,” he said, smiling. His voice, at least, was soft and breathy, practically like a girl’s. He moved up in the line, then spotted him next to the keg. Tanner’s gaze raked over him. Brent. The object of his desire since he’d started school. He was handsome, big…strong. Brent was a football player and never once looked at Tanner. Why would he? Obviously he was straight, but it wasn’t fair. Tanner could be as pretty as any girl. Was it that different?
The football player’s white shirt and snug jeans showed off his stunning body perfectly. Tanner shuffled closer, biting his lip as the guy in front of him got his beer and moved away.
“Seriously, dude. I thought I was gonna fail. I overslept and...holy shit. Hello there....” Brent stared at him now, turning away from his friend who was pouring the beer. His gaze tracked all over Tanner’s body.
Tanner blinked and smiled sweetly. He was sure he’d never sensed Brent looking at him like that. Could it be that easy? “Hi,” he said, pretending shyness. “You’re Brent, right? I’ve seen you at games and stuff,” he said. Of course, he had two classes with Brent, but he couldn’t say that.
Brent blinked. “Yeah, I’m Brent,” he said as his friend hooted. “Do I know you?”
Tanner bit his lip again. He flipped his silky black hair over his shoulder nervously. “No. I’ve just...seen you around. I don’t think we’ve ever talked before,” he said, taking the beer that the other boy offered him. He could see that Brent was intrigued and he smiled. “Well, see you,” he said, stepping out of line and turning to walk away. He paused for a moment and glanced over his shoulder to see if Brent was checking out his ass.
Brent stared after him, then stumbled as his friend gave him a shove. Then he trotted after Tanner and called out, “Wait!”
Tanner stopped again and turned. “Is something wrong?” he asked, feigning innocence. It couldn’t really be this easy, could it? For almost two years he’d been trying to get Brent’s attention. He’d done everything he could think of short of going up to him and forcing himself in Brent’s line of vision. Now Brent was running after him like he had him on a leash.
“Um, no,” Brent said, stopping in front of Tanner. “I just...” He glanced back at his friend as if looking for encouragement, then back at Tanner. “I don’t even know your name,” he finally said.
Tanner was glad he’d thought this far. At least he’d made up a little cover story. “My name is Nena. Nice to finally meet you,” he said, holding out his hand to Brent. The handsome boy had never looked more adorable now that he was unexpectedly bashful.
Brent took Tanner’s hand gently, as if it might break. “Nena. That’s a pretty name,” he breathed.
Tanner giggled a little. “Thanks, Brent. So...do you belong to this frat? Or are you just here for the party?” he asked. He took a step back to get out of the way of traffic, and leaned back against a doorframe in a deliberately provocative way, inviting Brent to move closer.
Brent took the invitation. “I’m not in a frat, no,” he answered, clearly fighting hard not to ogle Tanner. “Just hanging with friends. I almost didn’t come here, I don’t usually party that much. Coach gets really pissed if I have a hangover...”
Tanner nodded. “I guess I’m lucky you decided to come to this one. I’ve been hoping to get a chance to meet you.” He licked his lips slowly. “I go to all your games. You’re such an amazing athlete.”
Brent’s eyes widened. “You have? You do?” He seemed stunned. “Um, why did you never talk to me before? Are you a cheerleader?”
Tanner shook his head. “No. I’m not a cheerleader. I guess...so many girls are always sighing over you I was intimidated.” That part was true, although there didn’t seem to be much competition around now. He arched his back a little and took a deep drink of his beer for courage. “It must drive your girlfriend crazy,” he said, clearly fishing.
“I’m, I mean, I don’t have one. Right now,” Brent said, blushing. He looked down into his beer and mumbled, “Not for a while, actually.”
“Good,” he breathed. He took another sip. “I would have to hate her if she existed, anyway.” He was feeling bold. Brent was obviously eating it up, and it seemed so easy. It gave him confidence in his ability to appear female.
Brent looked up quickly and smiled. “I can’t believe I’ve never seen you before. I must have. You seem familiar somehow. I know I would have remembered such a beautiful girl.” He moved a little closer.
Tanner tilted his head, exposing his long, slim neck. “I am sure you have never noticed me,” he said with a shy smile. “Despite my best efforts.” He sighed. “Perhaps I am not the kind of girl you are interested in?”
“God no, you’re incredible,” blurted Brent, then blushed. “I mean, I’m sure I’ve never, um, talked to such a pretty girl. I mean. Like this.”
Tanner reached out and put his hand lightly on one perfectly formed pec. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating. I know all the prettiest girls wish you would notice them.”
“You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen,” Brent breathed, leaning into the touch. “Um...do you want to go out some time? Like to a movie or something?”
Tanner’s eyes widened. “Really? I’d love to. Anytime.” He licked his lips. It seemed too easy, and the beer was starting to affect his thoughts. He felt bolder, which was good, he decided, so he took another sip. “This is a great party, but...it’s a little loud in here. Do you want to go for a walk?” he suggested.
Brent’s smile widened. “That would be awesome. I’m not really big on parties myself.” He drained his beer. “Ready to go?”
Tanner tipped back his beer also, then put the cup aside. “I’m ready,” he said, nodding. He followed Brent through the tight crowd back to the front door. His thoughts were zooming ahead. Maybe Brent would even kiss him. Maybe they would find a quiet spot and hide away from the already almost deserted streets and Brent’s big hands would rest on Tanner’s hips and they would kiss. He sighed as they stepped carefully down the stairs around a boy who seemed to be passed out on the ground.
“Sorry,” sighed Brent. “They’re celebrating something, I guess.” The night was warm and sultry, and they walked past the frat houses now and the moon shone brightly.
Tanner walked beside Brent, feeling triumphant and just a little tipsy. “It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?” he asked. He felt nervous and excited. He just hoped Brent really liked him. He wasn’t completely processing the fact that he was pretending to be someone he wasn’t.
Brent smiled and shyly took Tanner’s hand. “Much more beautiful now,” he breathed, gazing at him.
Tanner was completely entranced. He’d wanted Brent from the first moment he’d ever laid eyes on him, and now the object of his affection was calling him beautiful. “You’re so sweet,” he said, lacing their fingers together. “How is it possible that I am so lucky to be the one here with you now?”
“I’m asking myself the same thing,” Brent said, squeezing Tanner’s hand lightly as they walked down the quiet street. “I can’t believe I never saw you before.”
They approached one of the few parks at the edge of campus, and Tanner glanced over towards a line of benches under a tree-lined walkway. “Do you want to...maybe we could sit down?” he suggested.
“Sure,” Brent said eagerly, tugging Tanner over to a particularly private bench. He brushed it off quickly before Tanner could sit down.
Tanner smiled and sat down gracefully. “Thank you,” he said, crossing his legs. Even so, the tiny skirt rode up, showing off his long, slender legs even more.
It was clear Brent was trying not to stare, but failing. “I’m really glad I came to the party tonight, and that you did, too,” he said..
Tanner’s heart pounded. All he could think about was kissing Brent. He wanted to crawl right into his lap, but it didn’t seem like something Nena would do. “And why are you so glad, Brent?” he asked softly. It was difficult to act demure. It was almost killing him.
Brent smiled shyly. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. “Because I met you,” he said quietly.
Tanner reached up and brushed his knuckles against Brent’s cheek. At least he knew that his hands were extremely girly. “You are so sweet, Brent. You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to talk to you.” He bit his lip, gazing into the other boy’s eyes.
“You’re beautiful,” Brent sighed. “Nena, I...can I...kiss you? Please?”
Tanner whimpered. “Yes. Please.” It was everything he’d ever dreamed of. He felt like he was in a movie or a fantasy of some sort.
Brent took a shuddering breath and leaned closer. He kept his hands in his lap as he very gently brushed his lips against Tanner’s. Tanner reached up, holding onto Brent’s broad shoulders. It felt amazing, better than he’d ever dreamed. He sighed, lips parting.
Brent kissed Tanner again, more firmly. He kissed slowly and tenderly still, as if Tanner was breakable. One hand came up to stroke Tanner’s sleek hair.
His hair was his Achilles heel, and Tanner longed to feel Brent’s strong fingers lace through it, hold him firmly by it. He wanted more, and he took a chance. He shifted, half-standing and moving to settle sideways on Brent’s lap without breaking the kiss. The other boy was so big it made Tanner feel small, and he loved that.
That wrought a deep moan from Brent, and his other hand came up to the small of Tanner’s back to steady him. The other hand still touched Tanner’s hair, and he kissed him more urgently.
Tanner was in heaven. He’d wanted this for so long. He wriggled a little closer and he felt that Brent was hard. And huge. He gasped, scooting back, eyes wide. “Is that...because of me?” he whispered, licking his lips.
“I...I’m sorry,” Brent said instantly, stammering. “I couldn’t help it, you’re so sexy...I would never...”
Tanner bit his lip. Brent was so sweet. So charming and gentlemanly. “It’s okay. I didn’t mean...I’m flattered that you find me attractive,” he said quietly. “Kiss me again?”
“Oh, Nena,” Brent sighed, and wrapped his arms around Tanner more confidently this time. “You’re the sexiest girl I’ve ever met.” Then he kissed him again, moaning softly.
It occurred to Tanner that this might end very badly. Something about the word girl on Brent’s lips jarred him out of his lustful haze and he stiffened a little. What if Brent wanted to have sex with Nena? He was going to have to do this carefully. He pulled back from the kiss. “We...we should go back,” he breathed.
Brent looked immediately crestfallen. “Oh, okay. I, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...” he looked miserable and let go of Tanner.
“No, I mean...” He didn’t want to screw it up completely. “I’m not used to things going so fast,” he said, trying to look shy. Of course, that was not really true. He would be more than content if they did it right then and there, but even if Nena wouldn’t look cheap for suggesting anal, there was no way Brent wouldn’t notice Tanner was not a girl.
“Of course, I’m sorry if I pushed, I...you’re just so pretty and I...” Brent bit his lip and repeated, “I’m sorry.”
Tanner put his finger to Brent’s lips. “You don’t have to apologize. I wanted you to kiss me. I just, I don’t want to let things go too far too fast.”
Brent panted and looked clearly disappointed, but he nodded. “Would you still like to go out with me?”
Tanner sighed. Brent was so sweet. “Of course. I would love to go out with you.” He kissed the corner of Brent’s lips. “When?”
“Anytime,” Brent said instantly. “Um, I’m sure you’re super busy, though...”
Tanner smiled. “How about tomorrow night?” he asked. “Do you have a single? Or do you have roommates?” He definitely couldn’t bring Brent back to his place.
“I have a single,” Brent replied, smiling. “Now I can’t wait till tomorrow night.”
“We could get some takeout food or something?” he suggested. At least in private, if Brent figured it out he would feel less like he was tricked in front of his silly jock friends. Not that Tanner was trying to trick him, but he could imagine what it would look like.
“Sure,” Brent said, brightening. “We could watch a movie or something...” He hesitated. “We can also go out if you want, though,” he added.
Tanner ran the tip of his finger along Brent’s jaw. “Staying in would be nice, though, wouldn’t it?” At least if they were alone in a safe place, maybe Tanner could control how things happened. Maybe Brent wouldn’t even have to know.
Brent moaned softly, and smiled. “Yeah,” he breathed. “You trust me to behave myself?” he asked, tone light.
“Well, I don’t want you to behave too much,” he said, giving Brent a flirty smile. He wanted him so badly. He just had to figure out how to get past this hurdle.
Brent’s smile increased. “Good,” he said. “Now I better get you back home before I have to kiss you some more and then we’ll be here all night...”
Tanner nodded. “Okay. But, if you can just walk me back to the party, I can take a cab. It’s too far to walk, anyway.” He didn’t want Brent to know where he lived. Who knew what could happen, but until the cat was out of the bag, he wasn’t taking any chances.
Brent frowned. “I should make sure you get home safely,” he insisted.
Tanner wriggled off of Brent’s lap and shook his head. He straightened his skirt. “I’m fine. Thanks.” He smiled sweetly. “Just back to the frat house?” he asked, holding out his hand. “Please?”
Brent nodded and stood up, pulling Tanner into his arms. “I can’t wait till tomorrow night,” he sighed.
Tanner hardly needed a taxi. He could have floated home. By the time he turned the key in the lock of his tiny off-campus apartment, he was more than ready to tumble into bed and dream of Brent. His roommate didn’t raise an eyebrow when he stepped into the living room in full drag, considering he’d borrowed some of his makeup from the other boy.
“You look like you had fun,” he said, looking up from the couch.
Tanner flopped down into one of the arm chairs, keeping his knees demurely closed. “You have no idea,” he said dreamily. He couldn’t even think about the challenges ahead, only of the sweet kisses Brent had given him.
“Did he figure out that you’re a boy?”
That made Tanner frown. “No. He had no idea. I sat in his lap and everything.”
Before a more in-depth conversation on the subject could develop, Tanner claimed exhaustion and excused himself. He went to his bedroom and peeled off the provocative clothing, and crawled into bed.
Monday, October 25, 2010
He watched from the shadows between decorative buildings of stone and stucco. A sleeping sun had allowed the balmy air to cool, and though a sheen of sweat graced the young women’s faces, the man felt little but his desire. In the distance, he heard boisterous laughter rising above a steady backdrop of city noise. Yet, this district seemed subdued in comparison to most areas of Rome, for proper folk were abed.
It was one of the reasons he chose this spot. Every adventure began in a quiet place.
Clearly a corrupting influence, the older of the two laughed in rich tones, wearing a light, saffron yellow dress that caressed her curves as she swayed down the paved street. The childish giggler wore thick white robes more suitable for outdoor appearance. Little sister? No, that did not feel right. Admiring friend, perhaps even the pupil. It would not be the first time a tutor took the student to experience facets of life unavailable in normal studies.
Each woman glowed with her own special youth and vigor, irrespective of the flickering light cast by the street side pottery lamps. Skin shone and flowing dark hair glistened as the animated one all but skipped to keep pace with the sensuous strides of her role model. This girl was health incarnate.
He would take her—and her naughty friend—whether they wanted it or not. Even as they headed toward busier streets he waited. Patience and savoring went hand-in-hand, much like the young beauties.
Laughing off catcalls, the pair sauntered down the stone-paved streets toward some unimportant destination, their glibness speaking volumes about their alcohol level. A frown crept onto that intent face as the watcher shifted to another shadow. Alcohol dulled the spirit, even if it made the process easier—easier, however, was not what he wanted. He liked the challenge, reveled in the capture.
Taunted, horny men could only take so much of the delicious sight from afar, and three of them stepped into the women’s path, blocking their progress. The playfulness turned to complaints as hands groped them and lips kissed them. A squeal showed the first sign of true alarm as one large hand squeezed tender flesh. It was time to act.
“Vir honestus,” said the emerging shadow, “that will be quite enough.” The man stepped into the street, toward the group.
“Wait your turn,” one retorted, his hand still squeezing a nubile breast through the thin robe.
“Look at me, and see to your safety. You will unhand these ladies and find whores to sate your lust.” Boldness and another step had their attention. Images flitted through minds softened by alcohol and lust, flashes of violent dismemberment and gushes of blood. A looming presence promised pain and terror to those who did not obey, which was more than enough warning for them.
As the muttering faded into the distance, the man held up his arms for the girls to take, saying, “You ladies apparently have been separated from your escorts, so now I must assist.”
This earned giggles, and both young women hooked their arms in his, shivering imperceptibly at the contact. “We are most fortunate to have a rescuer,” the older, more brazen one stated as they resumed walking. “I am Felicia, and this is Lena.”
He nodded his head to each. “This pleasure is mine.”
“A most unusual accent, sir.” Felicia quirked a haughty eyebrow. “May we know the name of our rescuer?”
“I am called Erezavnuri of Parthava, but you can call me Erez, if you prefer.”
“Parthava?” Lena asked, receiving a glance and a smile from her new escort. She was exquisite, with her light step and touch upon his arm. All treasured innocence and vibrancy. Delicious.
“You call the area Parthia—many weeks of swift journey to the east, and the portal to further lands, beyond even the reach of Rome. Many of those places I have seen.”
“Oh.” Felicia leaned into him, and he felt a nipple on his arm as they moved. Too easy. “And what would a Parthian be doing here?”
“Though I am a prince in my lands—an ashavan—where better to live than the capital of the world?” He halted, placing a hand on the bare skin of Felicia’s neck. She drew a shocked breath and stared at him. “There is much to know, much adventure to be had,” he continued. “Not so tame as Ovidius’s poetry, and not so safe as the parchment you hide away. More than sharing a bottle of wine with your young friend and seeing what trouble you can cause on the streets at night. Much more.”
“How do you know?” Felicia’s question was a whisper.
Erez smiled and lowered his hand. “Ashavan means a possessor of truth, Felicia. Would you like to see more truth? More than you ever will otherwise? Would you like to see how a foreign prince lives?” She could only nod, caught in a web of fascination with this dark, powerful stranger. He then shifted his stance and his gaze toward Lena. “And you, little one? Has the wine made you bold enough to peek behind the veil of your structured life?”
“I...” Lena began before drawing a breath and shaking her head. “Can you escort us home, kind sir?”
“And what would you learn there?” he soothed. “That your time is boring and you walked away from the thrill of many lifetimes? You might hold yourself back and be shy, but even in the lamplight, I see a flush of excitement shines your face.”
“Thank you for the offer, Erez—Prince Erez—but we best return before Felicia’s husband comes looking.”
He glanced at Felicia, who said, “Come on, Lena. Just for a little while. Davius need never know of this.”
“Truly,” Erez encouraged. “He need never know, and you can learn much outside your limited knowledge. Experience enriches life, and is that not what you came for? Take my hand. My villa is close.”
Felicia eagerly clasped the offered hand, but it took a long moment before Lena gave in. Each woman gasped as their skin met, and they resumed their slow pace while the hunter talked to keep their focus on him. “Listen to these earnest words: you are right to seek more, for life is about finding truths. As only one example, pleasure makes you curious, for underneath is a truth you desire. An awareness of a greater reality. In my travels, in my life, this is the reality I explore.”
The girls breathed heavily, as if running instead of casually strolling toward his residence. He suppressed a smile, assuring them, “I will show you only a tiny amount at a time—have no fear, for I am fully sensitive to your anxieties.” As he said this, he focused on the younger face. “You sense power, mystery, yet this need not frighten. Rather, it should thrill you and confirm what you see sometimes in your dreams. There is much more than this.” He waved their combined hands in casual contempt at their surroundings.
Both girls blinked in surprise as they walked through his foyer. They glanced about to see who opened the door, but they could not see a soul.
“Quiet now,” he cautioned, “lest you wake my servants.”
The prince led them through a richly decorated courtyard and into the large kitchen, lighting a horn lantern before continuing. Utensils shone in the dim light, scattered about the counters as if the cooks had decided to leave their mess until the morning. His other hand did not release its grip on Lena.
“How odd,” Felicia commented when he presented a large pantry as though it deserved special notice.
He corrected her. “Mysterious, you mean, waiting for you to discover its secret.” He urged her to step in ahead of him. “Open your eyes and tell me what you see.”
The woman shifted uneasily and glanced at Lena, who remained quiet. “This a trick question?”
“Not quite, Felicia. Merely a test. Place your palm against the back wall and speak my name.”
Now she considered him in a different light, but he held her gaze until she did as he bade, placing her hand against the wall. “Erez.”
“My full name.”
Felicia blushed. “I am afraid I forgot it.”
He scowled slightly, but did not want her to spook, so he transferred his attention to the younger. “You remember it still, Lena?” When she nodded, he praised her. “Good girl. Now show your friend a simple truth.”
With small movements, Lena placed her free hand against the wall. “Erezavnuri.” The wall swung away.
Felicia gasped, her eyes flying open in symmetry with her mouth. Lena began to collapse, yet Erez anticipated and caught her in the crook of his arm, bringing her against his strong body.
“And now you know a small piece of truth,” he stated as he cradled one of his prizes. “This door only opens to my name—the key is a gift from me. Here, hold the lantern while I help your friend.”
“Is she okay?”
“She seems to have fainted, but she will be fine once she rests. The initial shock can be surprising. Lead the way.” Erez motioned for her to descend, but she only looked with unease at the stone steps that led into darkness.
“What is down there?”
“A place for Lena to rest, and more truths for you to experience. You know not what lies beyond in this most secret of homes, but I assure you it will be thrilling.”
“How...?” Felicia stammered as she took the first tentative step down. “Did she really open the wall by saying your name?”
He nodded, scooping up the limp girl and urging Felicia forward. “It opens through no other means.”
“Sorcery?” Her voice came as a whisper. “It has to be.”
“Knowledge,” he corrected her once again. “Once you know the truth, you gain power. Did you pay attention to my name this time?”
“Yes,” she said. “Erezavnuri, right?” Behind the door swung shut like a trap closing, and the hunter chuckled.
“Very good. See? Your eyes are opened a tiny amount. Now if you would hurry—your friend is getting heavier with each breath.”
The steps curved and opened into a large room, deeper even than it was wide and littered with ornamented furniture. Foreign weapons and armor were displayed on the walls. Grandly painted privacy screens hid recesses, and exotic incense flavored the air as well as providing faint light. The nearest furnishing was a massive bed of stout columns at each corner. Soft black silks veiled the sheets, which looked ruffled and soiled.
As she parted the hanging silk so he could lay the unconscious girl on the bed, Felicia balked. “You have no wife or mistress?” There was no feminine touch to this space, and common wisdom dictated loners were the most dangerous.
“Place the lamp on the bedside stand and come with me.” He patiently waited for her to comply and take his offered hand. Her situation was settling into her head, and already she moved with reluctance. Too late and too easy, but tasty, nonetheless.
“What are those?” She gazed with distraction at the paintings of garish, twisting creatures that adorned the nearest privacy screen.
“Those images depict dragons, curious Felicia. A rare and magical creature of lands in the far reaches of the world, said to consume souls—though there is little truth in the tales. Only the tiniest measure, for I have studied one of the few in existence.”
“You’ve been there.” This whisper was less of a question than a realization, and he didn’t bother to acknowledge it.
Erez drew her deeper into the giant room, which became dark enough for her to doubt her eyes. As she gasped and halted, the ashavan slid behind her, releasing her hand in favor of gripping her upper arms.
Felicia began to quiver at the sight before her. He hovered close enough to touch her dress with his body. With a deep breath, he absorbed the faint mix of perfume and female musk—a combination that before long would fight the incense in the room for dominance. Savoring her fearful excitement, Erez bent to brush his lips against the skin of her neck.
She groaned, weakening. “Please.”
“You knew this quest for truth would not be easy, not in the places where your instinct resides. Feel the swirl in your belly, between your legs.” A hand slid over her shoulder and dipped into her thin clothing. “Have no fear, your pleasure will be as great as your pain.” With that, fingertips closed around her prominent nipple.
Her legs nearly buckled, and she panted.
“Your womanhood seeps, does it not? Because it knows the experience of your lifetime is drawing close. Feelings beyond anything you have imagined.” He twisted the exposed nipple, holding the whimpering woman in place while sliding her dress to the floor. “Step up to the restraints. Attach them to your wrists.”
Once he released her nipple, she took three faltering steps and reached for the manacles. Each clicked into place with a definitive sound. The captor pulled the lead rope, which ran through a hook in the ceiling, and her hands rose above her head. He soothed her, stating it would keep her from collapsing in an undignified heap when the pleasure became too much, and then he secured the rope once satisfied with the level of tension.
Her nipples strained under his renewed touch, muscles quivered as he stroked her exposed sides, and her belly fluttered as he caressed it. Short, tan curls on her mound matched her shoulder-length hair—those curls dampened as he slid two fingers across her clit. Felicia whined as his fingers lazily circled her nub, making her hips twitch. When she closed her eyes to escape his piercing stare, the fingers left, and she could only shiver and gasp for breath, and try to keep her full weight off her trapped arms.
Blindfolded, Graham took slow, halting steps with his hands extended in front of him. Warm, still air pressed down on him, and he thought he smelled a faint hint of sandalwood. Wood creaked softly as he picked his way carefully through the space, but otherwise nothing broke the silence but the faraway tinkle of water. Sweat broke from Graham’s brow beneath the dark scarf that obstructed his vision.
“Take off your slippers,” Alan tried to say calmly, though he failed to suppress his excitement.
Graham pressed his palm against the wall to balance himself as he toed off his footwear. He heard a papery swish before Alan’s hand closed around his wrist and urged him forth. His bare soles met a strange texture and, thankfully, a breeze cooled his skin and ruffled his hair.
“Ready?” Alan asked, the giddy delight strong in his voice.
“I’ve been ready since you tied this thing over my eyes half an hour ago, love. Why all the secrecy?”
Alan’s hand felt cool as it brushed up Graham’s cheek and pushed off the blindfold. Graham’s eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the early morning light, and he took in his surroundings. He stood in a spacious, wooden room carpeted with bamboo tatami mats. A low, wooden table surrounded by four embroidered cushions sat in the center. An alcove held an arrangement of late summer flowers, and another arrangement sat on a short night table. Directly opposite the door he’d entered, the rosy light filtered through a wall of rice-paper shoji screens.
“Come on,” Alan coaxed, hurrying across the room to push aside one of the screens. A shaft of light washed over the black-haired young man as he stepped out onto a small balcony.
Following, Graham inhaled at the breathtaking view of the Japanese garden with its curling bamboo, blood-leafed maples, wooden benches, graveled paths and weathered statuary. Beyond, he saw the quaint rooftops of houses stretching down a verdant slope. A tiny village nestled at the flat place at the bottom. In the distance, a snow-crowned trio of mountains reached toward the brightening sky. Graham’s first desire was to rifle through his luggage for his sketchbook, but he turned instead to the pale, slight man who stood grinning off to his left.
“Alan,” he said, turning and taking the hands of the other, “this is gorgeous. Not at all what I expected from a business trip. I can’t imagine the magazine is paying for this.”
Alan squeezed Graham’s knuckles, and his porcelain cheeks colored ever so slightly. “No,” he admitted. “Just something I wanted to do for you. I was coming here for the interview anyway, and since it’s kind of our anniversary—”
His dark eyes sparkling, Alan nodded. “It was around this time last year that we started getting serious. Then it only took me another two months before I finally seduced you!”
Graham chuckled. It had taken years, and Alan, to get him past his deceased former partner. He’d be forever grateful to Alan for his patience and understanding. “I’m glad you persisted,” he said.
“And I’m glad you never completely lost your British accent,” Alan said, stepping nearer so that his belly bumped against Graham’s. “So sexy.”
Graham reached up and stroked Alan’s silky, dark hair. Alan had an intense, almost tortured beauty: aquiline nose, prominent cheeks, and smoldering, black eyes perpetually underscored with dark. He was too pale, too thin, often looked exhausted and sometimes almost mad, but his overall effect equaled fascinating and overwhelming appeal. Graham thanked the heavens their paths had crossed.
“I always think of Halloween as our anniversary,” Graham told Alan. “I think of what you did for me, summoning that spirit to save my tree, and the way we worked together to cast that spell and protect our home—”
“You accepted me,” Alan said, winding his arms around Graham’s waist and resting his check on Graham’s collarbone. “Accepted the magic—”
“Almost lost you, as I recall,” Graham said, holding Alan tight as the memory of his motionless body returned, “to that secret wizard society you’re always chasing.”
Wriggling free of Graham’s embrace, Alan said, “Anyway, this place is called the Amagi Inn. It’s kind of a hidden gem. I have the interview with Dr. Harada later this morning, but then the next three days are ours. There’s a natural hot spring here. And down in the village they’ll have the O-Bon Matsuri. That’s their festival for their ancestors’ spirits. I’ve heard it’s really beautiful. So we can just relax and celebrate our—
“— just have a good time, you know?”
“Our anniversary,” Graham corrected, earning a relieved and appreciative smile from his partner. “I love it; this was a wonderful idea. Thank you. I love you.”
Smiling, looking more serene than Graham was accustomed to, Alan turned and walked back into the elegant, simple room. Graham watched his slim hips sway beneath his dark jeans as he followed. Coming up behind Alan, Graham insinuated his arms beneath Alan’s and dug his fingers into Alan’s tee shirt at his collar. Alan’s hard little nipples pushed against the insides of Graham’s wrists as Graham inhaled the clean scent of his shoulder-length hair. He burrowed his nose into Alan’s ebony locks as his hands skimmed down his torso to dip beneath the hem of his shirt. Alan purred with pleasure as Graham’s fingers found the bare skin of his belly. He closed his eyes and turned his face toward Graham. Their lips brushed together. Alan’s mouth parted, inviting Graham’s tongue. Graham licked across his teeth while his fingers moved up the pronounced muscles of Alan’s stomach. Inside his pinstriped navy trousers, Graham’s cock sprung to attention.
He’d been exhausted after the long flight from America to Japan, the three-hour bus ride from Kyoto, and the half hour blindfolded in a taxi. Now, feeling Alan’s body tremble at his touch, Graham felt not only restored but energized with lust. Alan curled his spine to press his ass against Graham’s erection. Graham’s hand yanked at Alan’s hair, positioning Alan’s face so that he could drill his tongue into Alan’s mouth. He could see Alan naked, sprawled out over the tatami mats. As he explored Alan’s hot, moist palate, he could imagine how it would feel to straddle Alan’s face and thrust his cock into Alan’s eager throat.
“Can we?” Graham panted.
“Gods, yes,” Alan replied, grinding his tailbone against Graham’s root. “I want you.”
Popping the buttons of Alan’s fly, Graham found his cock tip and began thumbing it just as a foreign voice announced itself. Frustrated and disappointed, Graham replaced his lover’s clothing. “Yes?” he called.
The shoji screen parted and a young woman entered the room with a tray. She spoke a few words Graham didn’t understand and began arranging some plates on the table.
“We’re just in time for breakfast,” Alan said.
The girl finished setting their meal, bowed, and departed. The savory smell triggered a hunger Graham hadn’t known had been so intense. His last real meal had been almost a day before; the airline food was completely unpalatable. He followed Alan’s example and sat with his hips on his heels in front of the low table. Alan poured tea from the kettle, and ladled some miso soup into their bowls. “Do you want to wait to eat?” he asked, winking.
Graham shook his head. “I’m starving all of a sudden.”
Alan served rice with strips of seaweed on top, pieces of thin omelet, and what Graham assumed was some sort of pickled plum. Graham lifted his plate close to his chin and began eating. Everything tasted delicious.
“We’ll have to get walking soon,” Alan said. “Dr. Harada lives down past the village, near the river.”
“Why does such a distinguished scholar live in this tiny little town?” Graham asked, helping himself to more soup.
“He’s retired,” Alan answered.
“Then why interview him?”
“He’s written a fascinating account of Japanese history during the Age of Warring States. His theories are revolutionary.”
“How so?” Graham asked, his eyes narrowing.
Predictably, Alan winced and stayed quiet for a minute, choosing his words. “Dr. Harada has provided some very compelling evidence of supernatural influence on the politics of the time.”
“Not that secret society—”
“No, no,” Alan hurried to say. “This is nothing to do with them. I haven’t been digging into their activities at all, since—”
“They tried to kill you?”
“Right,” Alan conceded, staring into his tea.
“But why not interview Dr. Harada via e-mail,” Graham wondered aloud, “or even over the phone? Why come so far?”
The corners of Alan’s mouth turned down, and Graham silently cursed himself, hurrying to say, “Though I’m glad we did. It’s lovely. So exotic.” Alan continued looking miserable, so Graham added, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.”
A few minutes later, the inn hostess announced herself, breaking the uncomfortable silence. She crouched to clear the plates away, smiling warmly at her patrons.
“The food was very good,” Graham said.
“Thank you,” she said in heavily-accented English. She placed their empty dishes on a tray and went to the hall. She returned with towels, brightly-printed yukata, a variety of soaps and lotions, and wooden geta sandals in a shallow crate. The daily paper lay curled beside, pictures of four high-school-aged youth on the front page. Graham couldn’t read the caption above them, so he turned his attention back to the innkeeper.
“Are there many guests at the inn?” Graham asked.
“No guests,” she answered. “Only you.”
“That’s unusual,” Alan said. “I’d understood that the Bon festival sees everyone returning to their family homes. I thought the inn would be packed!”
“People are probably just staying with their families,” Graham said. He couldn’t help fantasizing a little about the possibilities of empty baths and hot springs.
“Yes,” Their hostess said quickly. “Yes, thank you.” She set the things she’d brought on the floor, clasped her hands in front of her, bowed, and backed out of the room.
“Well,” Alan said, standing. “We’d better leave if we’re going to be on time to meet with Professor Harada.”
“It’ll be a beautiful walk,” Graham agreed, still hoping to make amends to Alan for his accidental ingratitude.
Alan said nothing, his back to Graham, as he loaded his laptop and some paper and supplies into his messenger bag. When he’d finished, he opened the screen door and stepped into the inn’s dark hall. Graham followed him, soon able to get his first view of the inn’s exterior. It was a fine traditional building of unadorned wood, single story and with a steep, gabled roof. The awning that stretched the building’s length had been decorated with paper lanterns to honor the upcoming holiday. Off to the left, Graham saw the maple trees from the garden near their room. A high fence blocked his view of the grounds to the right of the inn, but some rough, grey stone extended beyond it. The inn sat against a backdrop of mountain foliage dotted with rock. Some flowering bushes splashed color among the grey and green. It smelled pure and fresh.
“I wonder if there are any trails up there?” Graham asked, pointing.
“Probably,” Alan said. “We can ask. I think there’s a Buddhist temple further up the mountain, too. But, town should be interesting, and then on to the river and Dr. Harada.”
To Graham’s great relief, Alan reached out his hand. Graham clasped it, and they descended the long flight of rustic stone steps that led from the Amagi Inn to the little village of Inaba. Branches covered in thick, champagne colored blossoms brushed their arms and legs and showered their feet with petals as they passed.
It took them a little over an hour to reach the riverbank, mostly because interesting shops, architecture, and people in traditional dress distracted them. A few children splashed at the water’s edge, and speared twigs and sticks into the dark, wet soil. Further down, two old men fished. The boughs of the trees stretched out above the lazy, jade water, almost forming a tunnel over the river. It was shaded and pleasant; Graham would have loved to find a perch on one of the natural piers of rock, or on a fallen tree trunk, and do a bit of drawing. But, Alan continued purposefully on, finding a tiny trail that wound among the trees. Graham had to brush leaves and bracken out of his way to follow.
When Alan had told him that Professor Harada lived in a house by the river, Graham pictured something that at least vaguely resembled that statement. Instead his partner stopped at a dilapidated shack made from moldy, water-stained planks with moss growing on the roof. The rice paper covering the windows had been torn in many places and mended with masking tape, if at all. The forest reached right up to the porch, a section of which had collapsed and been propped up with a piece of a broken ladder. Around the muddy, fern-spotted patch that served as a lawn, a whole colony of tri-colored cats hid among shattered wooden buckets, rotting crates, pieces of pottery, and rusted bits of metal.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Graham asked.
“Definitely,” Alan said, going to a Western-style aluminum door that had been forced to fit where it shouldn’t. “Harada-sensei?” he called. Graham had already discerned that announcements like these replaced the door-knocking to which he was accustomed.
“Harada-san?” Alan continued. One of the many cats took a fancy to his ankle. “Alan Adale desu!”
An old man came to the threshold, wearing a faded blue yukata with lavender flowers over a pair of houndstooth dress slacks. His thin, ivory beard and moustache hung in wisps from his face. His hair, too, while full and shining, looked tangled and poorly kept.
“Ohayo,” he said, bowing. “Nihonsei wakarimasu-ka?”
“Skoshi,” Alan responded, “and not well.”
“Then it is good that I can speak English,” the man said, winking. “Welcome to my home.”
Graham followed Alan’s example and left his shoes in the little, mudded foyer before stepping into Professor Harada’s abode. No tatami mats covered his rough, wooden floor, and Graham felt dirt and grit on his soles as he followed his host to a table in the center of the home’s single room. The place smelled of old pipe smoke, cat, and stale air. Professor Harada indicated some threadbare mats and Graham sat on his haunches beside Alan. The elderly scholar sat opposite them and lifted an earthenware jug.
“Sake?” he offered.
Alan thanked him but Graham, noting the dusty cups set near the decanter, said, “A bit too early for me. Thanks just the same.”
Harada’s sharp, dark eyes flitted in Graham’s direction, and Graham had the feeling of being analyzed, assessed.
“Oh, forgive my rudeness!” Alan interjected. “Harada-sensei, this is my good friend and traveling companion, Graham Wise.”
Graham instinctively reached out his hand, and Harada humored him by jiggling his fingertips, though Graham felt sure he detected a condescending smile.
“Do you mind if we get right to work, Harada-san?” Alan asked, not waiting for permission to remove his computer, recorder, paper and pens from his bag.
“Of course not,” Harada said. “You honor me by coming all this way to speak about my work.”
As Harada and Alan began talking intently about the research involved in the book and the ancient manuscripts cited, Graham felt his attention waning, and he began to look around the small room. It contained little furniture aside from the table where they sat and a worn futon in the corner. Stacks of books reached almost to the ceiling in some places, and papers lay on every flat surface. Thumbtacks held still more notes to the wooden walls. Cats nested in rumpled piles of paper. At the opposite end of the room, a sink overflowed with dirty dishes, and an ancient rice cooker puffed steam. Next to it, kanji flashed across the screen of an outdated laptop.
Shuddering despite the cloying heat in the house, Graham was reminded of Alan’s apartment, on those occasions when he’d found his lover awake for days, surrounded in research notes. At least Alan would never be left alone to degenerate into this state. What had happened to this respected scholar that he ended up here?
“And so you truly believe that supernatural powers played a part in the outcome of these battles?” Alan asked, cutting Graham’s musings short. He understood now that Alan sought vindication. Alan’s research had led him to the belief that a shadow society of magic-users had been controlling most of the world’s affairs since the Dark Ages. From the way Alan clutched his pen in his fist, Graham could tell that he wanted confirmation of his theories.
“I do,” Harada said. “Take, for example, the Battle of Weeping Heaven, which happened near this very village.” He rifled through some papers on the floor and spread a map out before them. Pointing to a spot near the river, he said, “The Warlord known as Mitsurugi brought a force of two thousand warriors, leaving the local population outnumbered four to one. His victory seemed certain, but a monk who witnessed the fight wrote that a local man summoned a demon to aid the villagers in their struggle. He recounts the demon hovering over the warriors, calling up the dead from the ground. In spite of overwhelming odds, the Warlord was defeated on that night, and all of his men fell prey to the enchanted corpses. That man, with the demon still in thrall, went on to become a Warlord himself and win many battles. There are many other accounts of this creature summoning up corpses to fight for its master.”
Alan scribbled furiously, smiling. Graham, however, wasn’t convinced. “This is an old story,” he said to Harada. “People believed differently long ago. Isn’t it possible, probable even, that this account is tainted by superstition? That it belongs more to the realm of folklore than history?”
Holding up his finger, Harada said triumphantly, “There is proof! The battle site was excavated by a group of university students three years ago. Aside from the expected armor and weaponry, dozens of skeletons, hundreds of years older in some cases, were found among the remains of the warriors.”
“But couldn’t there be a more rational explanation?” Graham asked. Though he’d witnessed magic since meeting Alan, it made him uneasy; he didn’t want to believe forces beyond his understanding and control could influence his life.
Harada laughed, began coughing, and took a deep drink to ease his throat. He looked at Alan. “Some of us know,” he said. “Some of us have seen.”
The two men’s eyes met, leaving Graham feeling like he’d missed an inside joke, and he was not enjoying it. “Rubbish,” he said under his breath.
“Is it?” Harada replied. “Have you studied art?”
“Yes,” Graham said, even pricklier in the sweltering, filthy shack. “How did you know?”
“Tell me what you make of this.” The old man retrieved a poor copy of an ink drawing and handed it to Graham. “This is the monk’s depiction of the demon he saw on the battlefield.”
Graham looked at the picture. He’d taken art history courses as a student; he knew the usual Japanese depiction of their demons: fanged, cross-eyed monstrosities. This being, though, more closely resembled a beautiful samurai, a deity even. He had black hair that flowed to his ankles, white skin, and intricately-patterned robes. His black eyes slanted with mischievous knowledge, and his mouth turned up in what Graham could only call a seductive smile. Had it not been for his clawed hands and the two horns extending from the right side of his head, Graham would have said his portrait belonged in an Edo brothel rather than a monk’s battle memoirs.
“Perhaps this monk was simply lonely, and in possession of a good imagination,” Graham said, thrusting the copy back at Harada.
“Perhaps,” Harada said, shrugging and looking meaningfully at Alan again. “Perhaps not.”
“I must ask, Harada-sensei,” Alan said timorously, “what reaction your theories got from your colleagues?”
“You know that only too well, young man. My books are received as warmly as your own. It makes them no less true.”
“Why?” Alan asked. “Why can’t they accept it, no matter how much proof is provided?”
The old man hung his head. “People want to think they are the masters of their world. Woe to he who tells them otherwise. As you know.”
“But can we stop telling them?” Alan asked passionately. “If we know the truth, don’t we have an obligation at least to try?”
“Even if it gets you killed?” Graham asked, getting irritated.
“Yes!” Harada said, hitting the table with his fist, rattling the sake set and Alan’s machines. “I have sacrificed everything to know the truth! To see it with my own eyes, once, before I join my ancestors.”
“Alan has a lot to live for!” Graham interjected. He couldn’t help it; the idea of losing Alan the way he’d lost Luke weighed constantly on his mind. “He has people who depend on him.”
“I see,” Harada said, calmed. “I think you young men will be fine. There is much here in Inaba for you to enjoy during O-Bon. We have drumming and dancing in the town square, and all kinds of delicious food. You are young, and in love, if I’m not a fool. Go and be happy you are alive. There is beauty everywhere. I only warn you to be inside before dark. You are staying at the Amagi Inn, as I recommended?”
“Yes,” Graham said, a little ashamed of his outburst. “It’s quite lovely.”
“And safe,” Harada said. “Return to it by sundown. The hot spring baths are best then. Tell your American magazine this, in conclusion: I will continue to search for the truth as long as I am alive. And I will share what I know, and hope there are those who can see with clear eyes, unclouded by fear.”
“This demon exists,” Alan practically pleaded.
“Oh, yes,” Harada said. “Have no doubt.”